Leadership and culture: Lions led by donkeys – when managerial under-capacity is a choice

Take Away Line

Leaders of organisations can live in a work culture that oppresses them and builds in failure.  Yet, even as the leaders of their organisations, they can feel they have no choice.  They are stuck.  The example of the turnaround of the car industry in the UK, no longer British owned, shows how a different leadership mind-set can challenge and change, creating long term success: lions now leading lions! A beacon for organisations in other sectors perhaps?

Late and glum

‘Sorry’, the flustered executive director said, as she entered the meeting room of a well-known UK-wide civil society organisation, half an hour late.   I was there recently to lead a discussion with managers on how to implement an approach to measuring the outcomes of their work, something they were very keen to do.  But the meeting started with stressed and glum faces all-round as well as late arrivals.  It took some time for them to ‘contract’ into the process we were there for and they had commissioned.  Once they had suspended their cares slightly, I think our deliberations went well and they came away wanting more.  But at the beginning, it was clear that there was ‘stuff’ in the room.

Signs of stress

As our half-day proceeded, several signs of organisational stress emerged.  I made mental notes of this group of leaders’ complaints about their own organisation as we proceeded through our agenda:

  • A portfolio of services that was too broad to deliver well and which together made little apparent strategic sense
  • Ineffective  operational oversight which drew senior managers into inappropriate levels of detail, taking them away from their ‘real’ jobs
  • Frontline job roles which were too broad for the skills that the incumbents possessed and, possibly, for anyone to do well
  • A sense that while ‘we do great work’, the organisation’s profile is too low: ‘we are invisible and our stories don’t get told’
  • And, as illustrated by the late arrival and glum faces, a sense of stress and an inability of senior staff to rise above the impossible demands of the job, something that would inevitably radiate out across the organisation

Failure by design

There were perhaps other symptoms of stress and distress, but from this list alone, it appears as if failure had been designed into their processes, processes that touch deeply into the lives of very troubled families and individuals.  Such a situation if chronic – and in this case, it appears, it is – creates a troubled environment in which to work and inhibits the positive outcomes the organisation is trying to foster amongst its service users.

We ended the day with smiles and a sense that, whatever we’d been covering in our meeting, this group of leaders’ minds had been taken off their troubles, troubles to which they returned immediately afterwards.  In the case of this organisation at least, I mused on the train back, leadership qualities and management skills were not valued and, possibly not even understood well.

I hear colleagues’ voices echo in my ear:  a really good leadership development programme would sort this out: it would provide the organisation with a set of skills and attitudes, a clarity of purpose and alignment of the organisation to that purpose that would lead it away from its rather unconfident and unstable status quo, positioning it better for the future.  That is indeed possibly true.

A broader, cultural problem?

While the situation I describe is accurate, this organisation could be one of many organisations in the voluntary sector, large and small. But it could equally, in my experience, also be one of many organisations in the public, SME and corporate sectors.   Pushing the point, why would organisations with noble causes and committed professionals persist with an incoherent and even oppressive working environment that failed to deliver its purpose well?  Could there also be something in the wider (national) culture that perhaps somehow ‘infects’ organisations?

Then, next evening, I heard Jonty Bloom on Radio 4 talk about the car industry in the UK.

Donkeys and lions – who leads whom?

Bloom was musing on the strange phenomenon that car production in the UK is now higher than at any time. Yet none of the major manufacturers or, indeed many of the smaller ones, is in British ownership.  Back in the 60s and 70s, when production was last at its peak, the car industry was in the hands of UK firms.  But it was plagued by quality problems, industrial disputes and highly politically charged government intervention.  The prevailing narrative that the problem was primarily industrial relations and specifically poor working practices, which were disabling Britain’s industrial success.  It was in short a worker problem.  Our auto firms were eventually broken up, privatised and gradually moved into foreign ownership.

Twenty to thirty years on and the car industry is a success story. Bloom interviewed the German top manager of BMW-owned Rolls Royce.  They see a long term future for that quintessentially British marque, here in the UK, and have invested in product design, production and skills.  And that long term approach to investment is paying off.  While the car market itself is troubled, global brands have no fear to invest here and employ British workers.

So, Bloom, asked rhetorically, was it a weakness of British workers that caused the demise of the UK-owned car industry back then or was it, in fact, managers who were incapable of confidently planning for a long term future of innovative and high quality products and services, developing delivery systems and working cultures to deliver such a vision?  The inference is clear and it echoes what Prof John Milbank, in a recent Respublica blog calls England-at-her-worst’s ‘Promethean recklessness in the treatment of nature and human labour’.

Leaders in the voluntary sector may say we’d love to think longer term, but our funding arrangements don’t allow that.  Who makes the funding arrangements?  These are choices that, collectively, one way or the other, we as a society make.  And, gradually perhaps, can change.

Lions lead lions when they are able to strike out of such self-imposed limitations.  In recent research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (members only log-in), 43% of managers consider the layer of managers above them to be ineffective. Leopards may not change their spots, but our organisations, whether for business or social purposes, need lions in leadership to challenge and change.  But to get there, organisational leaders need to reflect on the extent to which the cultural factors that may limit their organisational performance are internal or are somehow also subtly but powerfully influenced by the wider cultural environment. Chains, even on lions, need to be broken!

Apologies to all donkeys, Palm Sunday2012!

Debating points

  1. To what extent are the cultural factors that may limit your organisation’s performance internal or are somehow influenced by the wider cultural environment?
  2. How can your organisation learn from the experiences of leaders in other cultural contexts about how to foster long term commitment to innovation and excellence in your area of focus?
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About transformingtales

What you do is what you do, isn't it? Nothing special there. What I do is work mainly with civil society organisations, but also some public and corporate sector outfits, to help them change. For the better. For good. If you provide a list of the things you do, the services you offer, like strategic planning, leadership development, corporate governance, culture change and performance management, they are just words. And tricky sounding words too that put you off and imply more questions than they answer. So, this blog is about the stories, the joys and the woes of making tranformative change happen (on a good day) and when and why it doesn't (on a bad day). And it's dedicated to my daughter who asked the question a few years ago: 'What do you do again, Dad?'
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